Pennsylvania Appellate Court Injects Uncertainty Into Fracking Industry

An 1881 deed and an 1882 Supreme Court decision formed the background for a very modern controversy recently addressed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The decision, Butler v. Estate of Powers, casts a shadow over ownership rights in natural gas contained in the Marcellus Shale formation, and has left many companies in the “fracking” industry uncertain about what they own.

The deed in question conveyed a 244-acre parcel to the appellees’ alleged predecessors in title, but reserved “one half the minerals and Petroleum Oils” to the grantor. The appellees claimed to own the surface and 100% of the minerals and petroleum — including, specifically, natural gas contained in the Marcellus Shale formation under the parcel — based on adverse possession. The appellants, heirs to the estate of the grantor, claimed that the reservation in the deed gave them, and not the appellees, half of the shale gas.

The issue: what legal rule should the court apply? Most observers thought that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 1882 decision in Dunham v. Kirkpatrick, as extended by its 1960 decision in Highland v. Commonwealth controlled. Those cases held that a conveyance of “mineral rights” is presumed not to include the right to extract oil and gas. The Supreme Court later carved out an exception to Dunham in U.S. Steel Corp. v. Hoge, which held that coalbed methane belongs to the owner of the coal. The Hoge rule was thought to apply only to coal and the gas contained within it.

Rather than simply applying the Dunham rule (as the trial court had), under which shale gas would have been excluded from the reservation in the deed and thus conveyed to the grantee, the Superior Court decided that expert testimony was needed before it could make a determination as to exactly what shale gas constituted. Is it a “mineral” under the rule in Dunham and Highland? Is it natural gas under the same rule? Or is it more like coalbed methane, and thus subject to the “whoever owns the rock owns the gas” rule in Hoge? The court thus remanded the case to the trial court, which will hear from the parties’ experts before deciding, for the second time, which rule applies to shale gas. In the meantime, the appellees have appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

With the remand and likely appeals, the issues raised by Butler may not be resolved for years. For now, anyone with a stake in the Marcellus Shale or the gas it contains — or in the Bakken Shale formation in Montana and North Dakota, which also contains natural gas — should review the relevant documents (deeds, leases, etc.) to determine whether the uncertainty created by Butler affects any of their legal interests.